Wednesday, June 25

How To Write A 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Story



Choose Your Own Adventure stories seem to be making a modest comeback thanks to tablets and smart phones. Today I'd like to look at the structure of a Choose Your Own Adventure story and pass along a few tips about how to write one.

(By the way, I've added more information, detailed examples, etc., and turned this series of articles a book: How to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure Story.)

What is a choose-your-own-adventure story?


Choose your own adventure (CYOA) books started out, in the 80s and 90s, as "a series of children's gamebooks where each story is written from a second-person point of view, with the reader assuming the role of the protagonist and making choices that determine the main character's actions and the plot's outcome." (Choose Your Own Adventure, Wikipedia)

For example, Kelly Armstrong, aided by Random House and Inklestudios, created Cainsville Files, an app that takes the reader through a mystery/adventure where the reader can choose her path and uncover clues leading up to a spine-chilling revelation. 

This morning I bought Armstrong's app and read/played through her story. It took me only an hour or so and I enjoyed myself enormously. I had planned on reading her book, Omens, at some point in the not too distant future, but I'm moving it up on my reading list. I'm interested in the town, Cainsville, and its strange inhabitants. I want to meet them again and learn more about both the town and the story universe.

CYOA stories, when configured as apps, have the advantage that it's possible to show simple animations and sounds. When I'm reading about a rainy night with lightning and thunder it's nice to hear the pitter-patter of raindrops and the slow roiling growl of the thunder. (Armstrong's app did not have this background augmentation.)

How to write your own choose-your-adventure story.


Just like putting together a regular story there's more than one way of going about it. That said, what follows are several tips from avid readers and writers of CYOA stories.

Plotting


There are several programs that can help you keep your decision tree straight. If you're scratching your head wondering what I mean by "decision tree" here's an example taken from The Mystery of Chimney Rock by Edward Packard.

A program I love and use often is SimpleMind+. It allows me to draw mind maps of all sorts. I can pick custom colors and outlines as well as leave copious notes.  

As far as writing a CYOA story goes, the best program I've looked at so far is Inklewriter over at Inklestudios.com. Here's a YouTube video that provides a brief tutorial:



Let's say you decide to take the plunge and write a CYOA story. How should you start? 

1. Sketch out the story


Write out a sketch of the story, a kind of zero draft, and then go back through it and break it into blocks. These blocks are linked together to form narrative chains. The number of levels a narrative chain has depends on how many blocks it has.

From what I've seen, most branching stories have a minimum of around 10 levels and a maximum of around 20. For example, the shortest branch in The Mystery of Chimney Rock had 9 levels and the longest 21.

What I'm calling a block of text could be either a scene, a sequel, or some kind of transition (for more on this see Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts). In a full CYOA there can be as many as 120 blocks of text. If each block is the length of an average page and contains, say, 250 words, then you'll have to write around 30,000 words. (That may seem like a lot, but it really isn't! The minimum length for a book is 50,000 words, but, depending on the genre, can be quite a bit more. Urban fantasy books, for example, are usually around 80,000 words long.)

Keep in mind that a reader wouldn't read all 120 blocks! Because of their choices, a reader would normally see only one block of text from each level. This means that each reading experience, each adventure, would be only 10 or 20 blocks long which comes out to between 2,500 and 5,000 words—the length of three blog articles! Though, that said, one of the fun things about CYOA stories is that readers can circle back creating a kind of time-warp.

Story blocks


Len Morse in Writing Tips how to Write a Choose your own Adventure Story suggests, for each block, trying to answer the following questions:

"Who has your hero met? Does your hero have any traveling companions? What is their relationship? (Friends, enemies, peripheral characters, pets?)

"What is your hero's inventory? Has your hero lost/gained an item? Is it needed to achieve the goal? (Food, clothing, money, weapons, climbing gear, a holy relic?)

"What special abilities or knowledge does your hero have? For how long? (Where is the hidden letter, who was in bed with whom, how to avoid a fight or pick a lock?)

"Has your hero actually achieved the goal? (Reached a destination, killed the enemy, won over the love interest, found the special item, rescued the prisoner?)"

2. Choose your story endings.


Morse mentions that there are five basic kinds of templates for endings:

a) The protagonist is captured.
b) The protagonist is killed.
c) The protagonist acquires treasure.
d) The protagonist finds love.
e) The protagonist fails in his/her quest.

There should be a handful of endings somewhere in the middle that cut the story short. The protagonist might die or just fail to achieve his/her goal. What this means for the reader is that they will need to go back to the last block/section and make a different decision the next time round.

Morse writes:

"[...] you might write five of each ending type, for a total of 25 endings. (It would behoove you to write less of the 'gets killed' endings. Readers hate that!) Also, there's nothing keeping you from combining your ending types (i.e. Maybe your hero gets the treasure, and then gets captured.)"

Also, keep in mind that, depending on the complexity of the story you want to tell, there may be more than one story thread.

For example, in Kelley Armstrong's book app, Cainsville Files, there was a main storyline—whether the protagonist, Jenn McCoy, will find out why her childhood sweetheart disappeared—and a secondary storyline that was a potential romance. You could fail to make a romantic connection, though, and this wouldn't affect (at least, not that I could tell) the main outcome.

Decide on your secondary characters


by Tom Gauld
There are going to be a number of characters in your story. You won't have all the characters I list, below, but you'll probably want two to four, depending on the length:


  • The protagonist's helper/best friend/buddy
  • The protagonist's mentor
  • The protagonist's sidekick. Often the sidekick is the same as the helper/best friend/buddy, but not always. This could be a secondary helper, perhaps even an animal, who keeps the hero company. For example, Minsc and Boo.
  • A wise old man/woman. This could take any number of forms, even that of an animal.
  • A Big Bad.
  • The Big Bad's helper/minion.
  • A red shirt.
  • Master page of character types.

Events: Kinds of deaths


If you're having a difficult time coming up with inspiration, here are a few possible ways to snuff out your protagonist (or any character): Various death tropes.

3. Throw in a subplot


This point isn't specifically about CYOA books, but a second plotline can add complexity to a story. In Kelley Armstrong's CYOA her subplot was a romance and I thought it worked quite well. 

Pros and Cons of writing a choose your own adventure story



  • A CYOA story can be a bit easier to write than an 80,000 word novella written in 3rd person with multiple point of view characters. As we've seen, a CYOA story can be a short as 30,000 words and has only one point of view—that of the reader.
  • A CYOA story can be a bit more difficult to write than a standard novel because, rather than writing one story, you're writing one story and all (or almost all) it's possible variations.
  • A CYOA story is written in the 2nd person. 
  • Pro: This is one of the few times this narrative viewpoint is used, and it can be used to great effect. Besides, it's good to try something new every so often!
  • Con: Many people don't like reading a narrative written in 2nd person (e.g.: You turn the corner. A hungry vampire crouches before you, fangs bared, poised to suck your blood!).
  • Often a CYOA story is told in the present tense. Some readers like stories told in the present tense while others loathe them with a red hot fiery passion.
  • Unless you're the Stephen Hawking of the writing world and can hold multiple branching outlines in your head, you're going to have to outline. That's a plus if you're used to outlining and have developed a method that works well for you, but a minus if you regard outlining as the literary equivalent of cleaning out a septic tank with your favorite toothbrush.

Whatever you decide to do, all the best! If you do write a CYOA story, I'd love to hear about your experience. Please leave a comment or contact me directly.

Update (Oct 4, 2016): There were many things I didn't have time to write about in this article so I've turned it into a series (see the links below). I've also taken all this information, added more, and turned it all into a book: How to Write a Choose Your Own Adventure Story.

How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 2
How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 3: Keeping A Reader's Interest
How To Write A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel, Part 4: Structure



Want to have all this information in one place? Get How to Write a CYOA Story! Right now it's only $0.99 on Amazon.


References/Links


2. Inklewriter. "inklewriter is a free tool designed to allow anyone to write and publish interactive stories. It’s perfect for writers who want to try out interactivity, but also for teachers and students looking to mix computer skills and creative writing." For $10 Inkle will convert your story into a file you can read on a kindle ereader.

3. Cainsville Files (app) by Kelly Armstrong.

4. Decision trees:

5. Articles about Choosing Your Own Adventure:


Photo credit: "hunch" by greg westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for this great post! I decided to try my hand at writing a few CYOA stories, and this is going to be a lot of help!

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    1. Glad to hear that! When you're done, let me know. CYOA stories are fun to read. :-)

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    2. Thanks for writing this, I am making a text based CYOA game and this has helped me out a lot.

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  2. Karen,

    I am not sure if this will post twice. I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to write out the roadmap of how to do a CYOA book. I am in the process of working on some for my publisher to place on Amazon and this will be a great deal of help since I was not even sure how to do it correctly to make it work.

    I know it is a very different story than a, "beginning, middle, end," story and what you have written and the links you have provided are wonderful. It is greatly appreciated and I do not find the task so daunting now.

    Regards,
    Aingealicia

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    1. Thank you Aingealicia! You've made my day, I'm so glad my post was of some help to you. Best of luck as you write your book. Please keep me updated on your progress. I would love to read your work when it's published. I think my readers would be interested as well. Let me know if you'd like me to review it on this blog. Cheers!

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  3. What a wonderful post! Very informative, thorough, and certainly idea provoking. I am aiming to adapt this format in the style of YouTube videos for a Spanish class. In other words, first person videos in Spanish that allow the viewer to select the next step just like the CYOA novels of the past. Thanks again!

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    1. Thanks Vinny! You've made my day. Wonderful idea about the video. If you have time, please do leave a link to it, I'd love to see it! :-)

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  4. This was really helpful and inspiring, feel a lot more equipped as I begin my CYOA with my two protagonists! Thank you!

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    1. That's great! Thanks for your comment, Andy. :-)

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Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies to anyone this inconveniences, I wish I didn't have to do it. I do appreciate each and every comment.